What Charles can learn from the bond between the Queen and my grandfather | Ndileka Mandela
OWhat makes a leader? For some, he’s simply a person with power – the more brutal and unbridled the better. This has been the philosophy of despots for centuries. But for my grandfather, Nelson Mandela, power was something else. It was found in the willingness to engage your whole being in a set of values; not only to defend them, but also to embody them. Come what may.
In this regard, many leaders lack power in the ordinary sense we associate with the term. For people like my grandfather, it was their moral courage and strength that enabled them to exert influence. Moreover, people often cannot help but align themselves with the values and virtues of a noble person. That’s why my grandfather rose from a prison cell to help overthrow apartheid, earning the fiercest critics in South Africa.
And that’s why he would have mourned the loss of the queen with the rest of the world. Some may find this odd, given the painful legacy of British colonialism in Africa (and beyond). But I saw in Queen Elizabeth II a contrast to what Britain once was, as well as an opportunity to understand what leadership could be.
The queen’s relationship with my continent was long. She was in Africa when her father died. The connection lasted, and during her reign she visited more than 20 African nations. Once she even joked with my grandfather that she had visited more Africa than “almost anyone”. But for so many Africans, we mourn her because of why she developed a friendship with Nelson Mandela.
I know from personal memories with my grandfather that he saw the queen as a true friend. Someone who understood him and how he understood the world. Someone who was, for Britain, exactly what Britain needed in times of change: a compassionate conscience.
The Queen refused to travel to South Africa during apartheid, with some even believing that the tension between her and Margaret Thatcher was partly due to Thatcher’s blatant inaction. What the Queen did after apartheid highlighted where she was from the start (and might explain why she and my grandfather were based on first name, an unusual status with a British monarch). His Majesty declared his support for South Africa’s first black president quickly, making her one of the first world leaders to do so. It also paved the way for South Africa to join the Commonwealth, toppling yet another consequence of apartheid.
For some in very wealthy positions, disconnected from politics, the temptation might be to withdraw from the world. To drown in hedonism and entertainment. But the queen instead called upon her immense moral capital and the legacy of her throne to plead in subtle yet profound ways. Even his determined and unwavering steadfastness, his refusal to debase his office, provided Britain with an anchor through stormy seas and difficult times. It deserves praise.
He also deserves imitation – the sincerest form of flattery. Charles III now succeeds his late mother at a difficult time for Britain and the world. With a pandemic right behind us and facing other major challenges such as the climate crisis, global fiscal disputes, economic depression and increasingly fractured societies exasperated by a rise in bigotry and racism, the world expects King Charles to follow his mother’s legacy – to be, in short, a moral leader.
One way for Charles to achieve this is to draw on the immense symbolic power and credibility he possesses, not just as head of the Church of England, but as a monarch who has spent years of building bridges with religious leaders and communities around the world. . It is the same Charles who said once he wants to be a “defender of the faith”, rather than simply “defender of the faith”, to reflect his commitment to people of all faiths.
The world needs such a leader now. Someone who can use constructive, non-political avenues to build bridges at a time when nations and regions of the world feel like they are drifting further apart. And there are many new partners Charles can engage with. Like Pope Francis, who has been outspoken about the climate emergency. Or the Aga Khan, who went to great lengths to build interfaith bridges. Or Dr Mohammad bin Abdulkarim Al-Issa, who heads the world’s largest Islamic NGO, the Muslim World League, and who led the first Islamic religious delegation to Auschwitz.
Yes, such efforts by the new king would be devoid of any political power. But the queen and my grandfather proved that the real power lies in people’s hearts and minds. And that’s why they, and now Charles, are able to command such influence and respect. Because their character is their means of communication, their principles are their policy, and their values and virtues are strong.
Ndileka Mandela is a writer, social activist and director of Thembekile Mandela Foundation
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